An update on sovereignty in Oklahoma

By Bradley Gernand

Patience is a virtue, particularly in regard to the status of tribal sovereignty following this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. The decision and a related one, which found the Muscogee (Creek) Nation continues to exist as a reservation, may soon apply to the Choctaw Nation as well.

The court’s ruling in McGirt, which was issued in July, was written narrowly to apply solely to the Creeks. Experts say the basis for the ruling—that Congress never acted to terminate their reservation—likely applies to all five tribes. Legal cases now working their way through lower courts may soon determine this.

Chief Gary Batton has established a sovereignty commission consisting of representatives from across the Choctaw Government. Its task is planning for all eventualities, one of which is that Choctaw tribal sovereignty could be reaffirmed by a court very soon. If so, the Choctaw Nation may gain added roles and responsibilities.

As the Creeks are finding, the first impacts of their newly affirmed tribal sovereignty are in matters pertaining to Indian child welfare, justice and law enforcement. Actions already taken by the Choctaw Nation in preparation for this include hiring an additional ten police officers and seven social service workers. It has also deepened its relationship with the U.S. District Court for Eastern Oklahoma, and with law enforcement agencies across southeastern Oklahoma.

In Washington, as Biskinik went to press, Congress was working toward funding, or authorizing, the federal government’s spending for the rest of its fiscal year, which concludes on Sept. 30, 2021. Progress thus far has been rocky, with two options appearing the most likely: either lawmakers authorize spending for the rest of the fiscal year by passing a full budget, or pass another continuing resolution to authorize spending at existing levels, with no increases or decreases. The federal government has been operating on a continuing resolution, rather than a full-year budget, since Sept. 1, 2020.

An in-between hybrid of the two may also present itself: Congress may pass a budget for the rest of the fiscal year for certain programs or agencies, and an extended continuing resolution for all others. Each of these three scenarios present potential opportunities and pitfalls for federal funding in Indian Country.

Certain services provided to Native Americans are paid with federal dollars, and if Choctaw Government agencies will be providing these in the future, rather than the state, it will work with Oklahoma’s congressional delegation to ensure the needed funds will be budgeted and made available. Chief Batton has already kicked off this process.

The timing and scope of what’s next depends on lower courts and Congress.